The Third Sex

  • SumoMe

Recently, the transgender community acquired third gender status in Tamil Nadu. This was done by issuing ration cards to them with the column for sex marked with a ‘T’, denoting transgender, rather than an ‘M’ or an ‘F’.
The provision of this ‘T’ is symbolic of the acknowledgement of the individuality of this community; of the fact that they are neither male, nor female, but a third gender, with an identity of their own. Though this move may only be a small one, it is the metaphor for a time of change, of a community gaining more acceptance in a society which they have always been a part of, but never really belonged to. So far they have had no ration cards, voter identity, or property and other legal rights. This move now paves the way for a plethora of change which will enable transsexuals to exist as recognized members of the society, with equal access to the basic rights and privileges that have so far been denied to them.

There are more than one million transgender people in our country today, which include both those born intersexed, as well as those who are born physically either male or female, but desire to be of the opposite sex. In society as we know it, the transgender community has always been an object of scorn, ridicule, disgust and fear. Derogatory terms and gestures are used when referring to Hijras or Kinnars. Shunned by their families, most of them live in state of abject poverty, which forces them to take to begging and prostitution. Due to absolute lack of protection by their family or the state, they are often exploited. Furthermore, section 377 of the Indian penal code, which deems any form of sexual intercourse other than peno-vaginal as ‘unnatural’ and as an offence, makes any form of conceivable sexual activity for them illegal. In a Legal system that only recognizes males and females, their hitherto absolute lack of identity has been an extremely crippling factor for them, which has made it impossible for them to avail of any government services without posing as either of the two recognized genders.

Interestingly, the inferior position of this community today is not historically inherited. During the Mughal rule, hermaphrodites or eunuchs were employed as guards of the harems and the ladies’ quarters. They also rose to highly influential positions in the court, and often served as confidantes of the rulers.

Their representation in mythology is also of great significance. Several myths surround their creation, existence and role in society. It is believed that Hijras sacrificed their genitilia to a goddess, in order to endow greater fertility on newly weds and newborn babies. The great epics too conferred a special role upon the third gender. In the Mahabharat we have the myth of Aravan, a young prince who was to be sacrificed during the war to ensure the victory of the Pandavas. Aravan asked to be married for one night before his sacrifice, so that he could experience sexual pleasure once in his lifetime. As no princess consented to marry a man who would inevitably make her a widow in a day, Krishna himself assumed the form of the goddess Mohini to fulfill Aravan’s last wish. This myth holds special significance for the transgender community of the south. Called Aravanis, they believe themselves to be reincarnations of this image of Krishna. Every year they visit the village of Koovagam in Tamil Nadu where they indulge in a ritual marriage to the Lord.

The Ramayana tells us that when Lord Ram was about to undertake fourteen years of exile, all his subjects accompanied him to the jungle. However, Lord Ram commanded that all men and women should return to their homes. When Ram returned fourteen years later, he saw eunuchs waiting for him at the jungle. As Ram had commanded only men and women to return to their homes, they stayed back in the jungle, loyally awaiting his return. Overwhelmed, Ram blessed them saying that when ‘kalyug’ would come; eunuchs would rise to power in the world.

In Islam too, Eunuchs were granted the special responsibility of guarding the grave of Prophet Muhammad and the mosque in Makkah. The grave restricted entry to any man or woman, and thus to the third gender was granted this sacred task. Even today on Muharram, eunuchs visit the mosque early in the morning before any man or woman and pay their respects. Thus the historical and mythological representation of this community established them as different from males and females, but this difference was enabling and empowering as it made them instrumental to those roles that either of the sexes were inadequate in performing. In addition the, various legends behind their creation adds a mystical dimension to their being.

Today, the mysticism that surrounds them still remains, but it is perverted by a simultaneous demonization. Even today, it is widely believed that eunuchs have the special power to grant blessings and they are often invited during childbirths and weddings for this purpose, where they are sometimes given large amounts of money. Despite this, however, they have no respect in society and are by and large considered violent, evil and repulsive.

The fallen status of this unfortunate community is hard to understand. After the Mughal Rule, the intolerance that crept in towards the Hijras could be a combination of several factors, which include the changing political scenario combined with our inability to tolerate or accept anything that is different or deviating from the accepted definitions of normalcy. Their minority in number also made it easier to suppress them and silence their voice. To a large extent, at least for the last few generations, it is the internalization and unquestioning adoption of the prevalent attitudes and prejudices. Reinforcing all of this is the aggression employed by the Hijras demanding money on the roads, and popular beliefs like that of Hijras kidnapping young male children and forcefully castrating them, thus inducting them into their community.

Up until very recently, I too shared most of these common beliefs regarding the transgender community. The prospect of encountering Hijras in trains at stations or in a crowded road or subway induced great fear in me. The only thing that distinguished me from the rest was a keen curiosity about them, a willingness to see beyond the surface and acknowledge that there is more to them than this distorted public image. It was all this that prompted me to join an initiative which deals with the transgender community. It exposed me to a small section of the same, which greatly altered my perceptions. Every week, our team would visit ‘Milan’, where some of the more well-to-do members of this community would congregate for a kitty party of sorts. Frequent interactions helped me develop a greater understanding, a better perspective on these people who now hold a special place in my heart. In these one hour long sessions, we would talk about anything and everything ranging from the movies we watched most recently to the hectic days we had at work/college and to weight loss and beauty tips.

We soon began to reach that level of comfort where we began to open up about our personal lives as well. I realized just how complex their situation is; far more than that of any other marginalized section of society. Right from the initial dilemma caused by the conflict between their physical reality and their emotional desire and the rejection and estrangement from their own families, to the subsequent life of poverty, prostitution and exploitation which only very few manage to escape from, the life of a hijra consists of hardships that are impossible for anyone else to understand. And if this isn’t enough, they have to deal with abuse, ridicule, hatred and exploitation which they have no way to protect themselves from, owing to the fact that they have no legal rights.

Even after three months of interaction, I still don’t know most of what there is to know about the community, and perhaps I never will. If nothing else, my experience thus far has taught me just HOW ignorant we are about this special community and how vastly different their experiences are. However it has made me realize the narrowness of our perspective and the urgent need for change. There is no denying the fact that the Hijras we encounter in trains, subways, and crowded streets can be extremely coercive and can even tend to become violent when demanding money. But instead of shunning them as evil and criminal for this purpose, why can’t we be a little more sympathetic and understanding of the circumstances which have most likely forced them to resort to these tactics?

Maybe their aggression stems partly from anger at the life they’re doomed to lead. Maybe their aggression is a tactic used by them, their way of using the fear we hold towards them to their advantage. In this light, can we not compare their situation to that of the blacks who, too, resorted to violence and aggression to survive the years of racial oppression that they were subjected to?

Once, in a conversation regarding the unpleasant experiences some of us had had with Hijras on the road, one member of the community simply said, by way of explanation, that just as there are good and bad men and women, there are good and bad hijras. This statement, though seemingly simplistic, struck me as the key to understanding the transgender situation. One may not be able to deny the existence of these ‘bad’ Hijras, in fact it is not even necessary. All we need to do is open up to the possibility of the ‘good’ ones, and there lies the first step towards accepting this community as an equal part of our society. Once this is done, the rest will follow.

The journey for the transgender community so far has been hard, and is still far from over. There is a long way to go, but hopefully the road will now be easier to travel. The transgender movement in India is gaining more and more mileage and in the recent past, several positive changes have already taken place. In 2006, in Tamil Nadu, the government offered free Sex Reassignment Surgery to the transgender after counseling, and recently in the same state this community has now also gained an identity. This community is also gaining more and more exposure in the media off late. Thus, the wheels of change are set into motion, and hopefully, we will soon see a day when the example of Tamil Nadu is followed by the nation and even the world at large, and when there will be equal place in our legal and social system for a gender that is different from both male and female, but inferior to none.

Soumya Rao


[Image Source: http://flickr.com/photos/afaq/1442955558/]

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